The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has an interesting theory about the difference
between rich and poor countries.
It’s not that poorer countries lack assets.
It’s that they lack capital.
|Hernando de Soto|
An asset is something you possess. Even very poor countries, de Soto argues, have a wealth of assets. What they don’t have are the mechanisms to turn their assets into capital – to unlock the potential of those assets to generate greater wealth.
For example, a house is an asset. It provides protection from elements, a place to sleep at night, prepare meals, store your belongings and raise a family. If your house is near other houses, it provides you with a place in the community.
But if that house is a corrugated metal shack in an illegal squatter settlement on the edges of mega city, it will never be anything more than a roof to keep the rain out. That asset is inert.
On the other hand, if you have legal title to that house, it can do many things in addition to providing shelter. It can be used as collateral to borrow money in order to finance an education, start a business, or boost the economy. It is an identifiable address that gives its owner access to a wide range of public services, It generates taxes that support everything from reliable utilities to police protection – all the things that make communities safe and liveable. That asset becomes a generator of greater wealth and opportunity.
Poor countries may be rich in assets, but they lack the financial mechanisms and legal system to turn those assets into wealth-generating capital.
At least that’s de Soto’s theory. And I’m not an economist, so I can’t judge how true it is.
However, de Soto’s ideas made me think of an intriguing parallel in the area, not of economic capital, but of “social capital.” Social capital refers to the connections between people that make human communities possible.
Churches are rich in social capital. They have a wealth of interpersonal connections. And they are rich in assets – far richer than they may realize. But often, churches don’t know how to capitalize on those assets to generate growth and fruitfulness. Their assets aren’t being used to their fullest potential.
Take, for example, that basic church asset -- friendliness. I don’t know of a church whose members don’t think of themselves as friendly. And that is a vital asset. After all, who wants to go to an unfriendly church?
Friendliness can be a precious commodity in today’s culture of loneliness. And it’s often our smaller churches who have this asset in the greatest abundance.
But many churches don’t know how to get the most out of their innate capacity for friendliness. They lack the means of sharing that asset with people outside their own circle, of leveraging that asset to generate a greater wealth of meaningful relationships. With visitors or with people outside the church, they don’t know how to move from a polite greeting, to an open conversation, to significant relationships – to move, in other words, from “friendliness” to “friendship.”
This problem begins with the question of purpose. We have been conditioned over generations to think that the end game is how to attract people into the church – and that the only really valid measure of success is how many show up on Sunday morning. Many a youth ministry or outreach project has been labelled a failure because it doesn’t increase worship attendance.
Congregational assets may be producing in ways that we don’t count because we aren’t looking for them. We don’t see the many ways in which people experience hope, healing and the presence of God through contact with Christians because those people don’t follow the expected path to church involvement.
A critical task for churches these days is to take stock of their assets – not just buildings and trust funds, but the capacity of their people to represent Jesus to those to who do not yet know him.
But a second and equally critical task is to come up with simple, practical, effective ways of sharing those assets with others so that Christ’s ministry is extended.